I started this blogging thing a couple of months ago. I’m still not sure what to write about, so I cast my mind back to some of the most useful blog posts I have read over my teaching career. First lessons with a new bunch of learners sprang to mind immediately. And as luck would have it, it’s the start of a new academic year for many teachers 🙂 So here’s my comprehensive take on first lessons.
It’s often difficult to know what to do in a first lesson. Maybe it’s your first lesson in a new school. Maybe the learners all know each other already, but not you. Maybe you feel like you need to get started on the course book immediately, or maybe your course books aren’t arriving for another month! Whatever the case, I think it’s always worth ringfencing the first lesson to do some (not necessarily all) of the things in this post…
Before you even go into the class, find out all that you can. Have the learners studied together before? Have you taught any of them before? Can you see their level tests?
If it’s a course you haven’t taught before, find out about that too. How will you need to assess learners? Is it for business people or university students? Etc.
Learning names in the first lesson sends a clear signal to learners that you care about each of them individually. We often expect our learners to reveal some pretty personal information about themselves in class, so it’s worth giving learners a chance to learn each other’s names, too. Here are some ways you can do that…
- Ball game. A simple memory game that’s fun with low level classes.
- Sit in a cozy little circle with learners.
- Chuck the ball to a learner and say “My name’s …” Don’t just do this until everyone has said their name once; continue until everyone has heard each other’s names several times.
- Next time you get the ball, throw it to a learner and say “My name’s… and your name’s…” continue this until learners get to grips names.
- Finally, get a learner to throw the ball to you and add their name to the string, saying “His/her name’s… my name’s… and your name’s…”.
- Test the teacher. I learnt this from the course tutor on my CertTESOL. Simply go from the left of the class to the right of the class asking each learner’s name in turn. After each one, go back to the beginning and reel off all the names again and again. Although it’s a bit teacher-centred, learners always have a chuckle and get into the spirit of this, and you’ll have remembered the names from the get-go.
- Hello. What’s your name? Learners ask everyone on their table their names and one interesting fact about them. Report back to the class.
You’ll notice I didn’t include learners writing their names on placards or badges. I think that’s fine for one-off lessons or training sessions. However, if you’re embarking on a new course with this group of learners, I’ve always felt that it sends out the wrong signal.
Getting to know you
Next for an interpersonal activity to put learners at ease and start building rapport among themselves and with you.
- Venn diagram. A great way to see what you all have in common.
- Elicit what they can talk about with someone they’ve never met before, eg. age, hobbies, family, job, education, and write up on the board.
- Draw a Venn diagram on the board, writing your name in one of the circles and a confident volunteer’s name in the other one.
- Demonstrate the activity: ask the volunteer about one of those topics you brainstormed, ‘Are you married?’, for example. If he is and you are, you write it in the overlap on the diagram, otherwise, if it’s only true of one of you, write it in the circle with his name or your name. Continue the demonstration until learners have got it.
- Now get learners to draw their own circles (or give them this template) and they do the same in pairs.
- Afterwards, learners can report back to another pair or the class using phrases like ‘we’re both married’, ‘neither of us like pop music’, ‘he likes spicy food but I don’t’.
- Find someone who. A classic. Also great for finding out specific information about learners.
- Give learners the sentence head ‘Find someone who…’ and sentence tails, such as ‘…listens to music every day’, ‘…has eaten a strange food before’.
- Elicit the questions that learners need to find out that information from a classmate, i.e. ‘How often do you listen to music?’, ‘Have you ever eaten a strange food?’
- Learners now mingle and write down a name next to each thing, plus ask a follow-up question.
- Gather learners together and ask them ‘Who listens to music everyday?’, ‘Who has eaten a strange food before?’ for feedback.
- 3 things nobody knew about… I learnt this at summer school in the UK and have used it in all teenage general English classes ever since.
- After learners have learnt each other’s names, give learners a blank mindmap handout (as in picture above). Tell them to write all the other learners’ names in the circles.
- Now they are going to stand up and mingle. They should find out 3 things that nobody knew about each other learner in the class. Spend some time exploring questions they could ask, and rule out any questions that are too simple, like ‘How old are you?’. You can join the mingle, too!
- After 20-30 minutes of chit-chat, gather learners together in a circle. Call out a name and time 30 seconds for learners to call out everything they found out about that person.
- Cloud game. THE classic icebreaker.
- Write up about 8 words or numbers about yourself in a mind map on the board, eg. Mark, 31, Blade Runner, etc.
- Tell learners that these are the answers to questions about yourself. Ask them to guess what the questions are. This is a nice way to tell them a bit about yourself and satisfy their curiosity!
- Next, you could either get learners to just ask each other the same questions, or get them to make their own clouds and guess the questions that the words answer.
- Change places if… A high-tempo icebreaker game for teenagers.
- Before the lesson, prepare a worksheet with a series of incomplete sentences to complete about themselves.
- In the lesson, learners complete these while you monitor and help.
- Now sit learners down in a circle and write ‘Change places if…’ on the board.
- Demonstrate by calling out: ‘Change places if you have two eyes.’ Everyone should stand up and swap chair with someone else. Continue demonstrating, then remove one chair. This time a learner will be left without a chair and they will take your place to say ‘Change places if…’ using the sentences on their worksheet as a prompt.
- Two truths, one lie. Another classic that’s good for ‘false first lessons’, when the learners already know each other but not you, or when you come back from term break to find 6 new learners in the class.
- Tell learners two truths and one lie about yourself: ‘I can speak 5 languages, I have eaten a Guinea pig before, I like playing games on my mobile phone.’
- Learners form pairs to guess which one was a lie and feedback to you.
- Tell learners who was right and explain anything that needs explaining.
- Now learners do the same in small groups.
Adult learners want to get a first taste of what they’ll be learning on the course. The activities above all have an in-built language focus: Venn diagrams incorporates both/neither and auxiliary verbs to replace main verbs (eg. …, but I don’t), Find someone who focuses on question forms, and so on. This doesn’t need to be a full grammar lesson or anything, just make it clear to learners that they have learnt something already. You could also praise any good language that learners used or do some fairly light error correction (you don’t want to scare learners off on the first lesson, though!)
The first lesson is also the time for you to find out what learners already know and diagnose any obvious things to improve in their English. You may wish to do a more thorough diagnostic test at some point over the first few lessons to make sure you’re tailoring the course to learners’ needs and so you have a benchmark against which to monitor progress.
Also, observe learners closely in a relatively free task like those above so that you can get to know personalities, behaviours and social skills. You’ll be looking out for those gregarious students whom you can call upon as volunteers when demonstrating activities, seeing which learners get on well and which ones don’t really gel, nipping any problematic behaviour in the bud, and so on.
After a student-centred activity like those above, I think it’s good to give a little welcome speech to learners. I know I’d appreciate it if I were a learner. And as a teacher, I want to set a good tone, I want learners to think: ‘this guy knows what he’s talking about, he seems very approachable and he has told me all the things I wanted to know on the first lesson and more!’ Some things to include are:
- Overview of times, terms, dates
- Syllabus and opportunities to negotiate it together
- Where toilets are!
- How you will be assessed
- What to bring to class
- Safeguarding (if under 18 years old) and fire safety
- School policies
- Any questions?
With teenagers, it’s worth discussing classroom rules and expectations. The way you do this will depend on the learners, ranging from you strictly laying down the rules to an egalitarian class decision on rules.
- Dictation. There are several possibilities here once you have established a list of several simple rules. You could dictate them while learners categorise them into Do’s and Don’ts. Or you could dictate the rules with words in scrambled order, and learners work in teams to write them correctly on mini-whiteboards.
- Categorising. Give learners some pictures of things they might do in class, like ‘drink water’, ‘eat food’, ‘speak English’, ‘play on mobile phone’. Elicit the words for these pictures, then learners sort these into Do’s and Don’ts and feedback.
- Finishing sentences. Give learners some sentence heads, like ‘We should…’, ‘The teacher shouldn’t…’, ‘We can’t…’ using modal verbs of permission/obligation. Learners think about how to finish these sentences to form classroom rules in pairs. They could then compare with another pair before gathering the rules from everyone in open class and potentially making a poster as a reminder of these. Alternatively, you could write these up as a classroom charter.
- More ideas here.
I hate the name ‘needs analysis’. It sounds like some horribly formal and scary procedure, and this puts teachers off doing them, which is such a shame.
All it means is finding out about learners’ backgrounds and what they want to get out of the course. It gives you a chance to put yourself in the learners’ shoes and teach them what they want to learn. And if you let your learners know that you’re doing it for those reasons, they are sure to appreciate it. The newly-formed class will also benefit from it collectively, as they will realise they are all in the same boat despite individual differences.
Here’s a concrete example. When I do needs analysis with IELTS classes, I find that cohorts can vary significantly and I need to know that from the outset…
- In one cohort, 6 out of 10 learners in one group have already taken the test, but didn’t reach their desired band score. They need help to improve on weaknesses. When discussing the format of the test, the 6 learners who have already done it can describe it to those who haven’t.
- In another cohort, 4 learners out of 12 are going to take the test this month! I would make sure we have looked at each part of the test in the first month of the course so that those 4 learners are prepared.
- Over the university break, only 1 out of 13 learners actually intends to take IELTS, everyone else just want to improve their English. We would likely do more general English (vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation), within an IELTS context using IELTS tasks.
So here are some easy, fun ways to conduct a needs analysis.
- Interview. Before the lesson, make a quick questionnaire including questions that will help you find out about your learners’ backgrounds and needs. Learners ask each other the questions, feedback in open class, then give you the completed questionnaires.
- Priorities. Write out some sentences about potential learners’ needs on little cards, eg. I need to use English on the telephone. I need to write emails in English. etc. Learners rank these in order of priority for themselves and compare with other pairs. You can take a photo of their ordered cards for reference.
- Find out someone who. This icebreaker (see above) also doubles up as a fun, informal needs analysis. Just adapt the sentence tails to things you need to know about learners. For example, I usually do this with IELTS classes to find out if they have taken IELTS before, if they know the format of the test, how they have learnt English in the past, etc. During feedback you can note down anything you need to remember.
- Homework. You don’t necessarily need to do the needs analysis during the lesson. I usually write a letter to teenage learners – introducing myself, asking general questions about them and also some needs analysis questions (What topics do you like talking about in class? What would you like to improve over this course?). Learners write a reply for homework. Learners often say more in writing than they would in front of their peers, so expect some very honest useful responses 😉
Of course, if this is an English for Specific Purposes (ESP) or small-group course, you will need to do more research and negotiation to tailor the syllabus to learners’ needs.
If learners are going to be speaking English in class, they may need some classroom language, especially at lower levels. Depending on how long your first lesson is, you might want to save this for a future lesson, or stagger it over several lessons. You could look at:
- Common instructions: draw, write, underline, point to, etc.
- Questions: Can I go to toilet, please? How do you spell…? etc.
- Classroom vocabulary: chair, whiteboard, folder, pen, etc.
- Metalanguage: pronunciation, vocabulary, verb, noun, adjective, etc.
Over the first few lessons, it can also pay off to spend time looking at how learners can help themselves. As you do things for the first time, you can spend just a little longer than normal to make sure that learners get into good routines, for example:
- Vocabulary books. The first time you study vocabulary, you could spend time talking about how to record vocabulary and how to revise vocabulary. I often make a vocabulary box to use with learners (see ideas for how to do this here) too.
- Reflection. Get learners to reflect on what they have done after each lesson, either speaking with a partner or writing in a little learning journal.
- Pronunciation. Introduce learners to the phonemic chart if you’ll be using it, and any metalanguage they might encounter (stress, intonation, syllable).
- Outside of class. Encourage learners to read books, listen to music, watch films, etc. in English and speaking English if they have the opportunity.
- Establishing aims. It may be appropriate for learners to establish specific aims about what they want to learn and how they will learn it.
- Other resources. Give learners a head-start using dictionaries, websites, apps, etc.
Wow, that seems like a lot already!
Even after that, I often find that I don’t want to jump straight into the course book in the second lesson. Here are a couple of topics that are very well suited to the beginning of a General English course:
- Talking about names. After a classroom discussion about names (prompted by questions), I read an adapted version of this article about Thai nicknames with my teenage learners.
- Discussing language learning. After some discussion and vocabulary about the benefits of learning languages, I do a jigsaw reading based on this infographic with adults or older teenagers.
- Culture quiz. This can be a nice way to get some intercultural understanding going with your learners. Give them a quick quiz like this one below to answer in pairs (I used this when teaching in an Italian middle school). You can then ask learners what else they know about your country or ask them to prepare a culture quiz about their country for you to answer!
There’s no one-size-fits-all model for first lessons, as it depends on the teacher, the learners, the course and the culture. How about you? What do you do in first lessons?
Featured image adapted from: Image from page 17 of “Social center features in new elementary school architecture and the plans of sixteen socialized schools” (1912), For more information on images on TESOLtoolbox, see Imagery.